With the beginning of the school year upon us again, I thought it might be valuable to review a very important topic. One of the most important steps a district can take to help protect their students and protect themselves from legal liability is to have a clear and comprehensive policy regarding bullying and harassment, technology, and their intersection: cyberbullying.
Almost every state requires districts to have a comprehensive policy in place, and generally involve one (or more) of the following elements:
1. requirement to add “cyberbullying” or “electronic bullying” to current anti-bullying policies;
2. provision of specific graduated consequences and remedial actions for cyberbullying;
3. provision to allow administrators to take reasonable action when off-campus actions have affected on-campus order;
4. requirement to develop new investigative, reporting and disciplinary procedures in cyberbullying cases;
5. Mandate that schools create and implement prevention programming (such as Internet safety, ethics, etiquette training and curricula).
In our award-winning book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard, we fleshed out what we believe are the most important components of an effective school cyberbullying policy. This stemmed from our research into what schools were currently doing, and what was working, and what was not. Apart from the aforementioned elements, we believe that tying bullying/cyberbullying prevention/response to a more holistic initiative to improve school climate will be most promising. Let’s explain further the elements that should comprise these policies, so you can make sure your school has solid footing before you deal with any incidents this year.
First, it is important that the policy clearly defines the behaviors it seeks to proscribe. The more specific the policy is, the more likely it will withstand legal challenges. As William Shepherd, a Statewide Prosecutor in Florida’s Office of the Attorney General cautions, however, “The law or policy should be specific, but behavior changes over time, so you must have the ability to grow with the times.”
Also, we list below several forms of bullying that should be clearly delineated in your policy. Generally speaking, any communication that has been perceived by a student as unwanted, vulgar, obscene, sexually explicit, demeaning, belittling, defaming in nature, or is otherwise disruptive to a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate its students in a safe environment, or causes a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress or fear of bodily injury, should be subject to discipline.
Forms of Bullying
Bullying can occur by one individual or a group of individuals, can be direct or indirect, and can take the following forms:
A. “Physical bullying” – demonstrations of aggression by pushing, kicking, hitting, gesturing, or otherwise invading the physical space of another person in an unwelcome manner. It also includes the unwanted tampering with or destruction of another person’s property.
B. “Verbal bullying” – demonstrations of aggression through insults, teasing, cursing, threatening, or otherwise expressing unkind words toward another person.
C. “Relational bullying” – demonstrations of aggression through exclusion, rejection, and isolation to damage a person’s position and relationship within a social group.
D. “Cyberbullying” – the intentional and repeated harm of others through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.
Cyberbullying can result in discipline whether it occurs on or off campus, irrespective of whether it involves an electronic device at school, at home, or at a third-party location, and if it results in a substantial disruption of the school learning environment as defined in this policy.
It is also important to remember that many districts already have policies in place that prohibit various forms of harassment, including harassment based on race or sex. Any behavior that constitutes sexual harassment, for example, should be handled under those provisions, irrespective of whether the behavior is also considered bullying or cyberbullying.
With regard to penalties, any student found to be participating in, contributing to, and/or encouraging acts of cyberbullying and/or harassment towards another student or staff member must be disciplined. Your policy must identify what specific actions will be taken. To determine the severity of the harassment or discrimination, the following may be considered: how the misconduct affected one or more student’s education; the type, frequency, and duration of the misconduct; the number of persons involved; the subject(s) of harassment or discrimination; the situation in which the incident occurred; and other related incidents at the school. Any cyberbullying that has been perceived as a criminal act, such as a threat to one’s personal or physical safety, will be subject to discipline and result in the notification of law enforcement.
Discipline can include a number of different actions. These can include:
• Parental contact
• Behavioral contracts
• Loss of privileges (either in-school or extracurricular)
• Conferences with students, parents, teachers, or administrative staff
• Interventions by school guidance personnel
• School service work or student work detail
• Removal of student from class
• Loss of bus privileges (parents are thus responsible for transportation)
• In-school alternative assignments or intervention programs
• Detentions (before, during, after school, or on Saturday)
• Restorative Justice
• Assignment to alternative program in lieu of suspension days
• Suspension – removal of student from school for up to 10 days
• Assignment to an alternative educational facility
• Expulsion – removal of student from school for remainder of year plus one additional year
We’ve discussed before that it is critical to link specific behaviors with specific disciplinary outcomes so that students know exactly what may happen if they are caught engaging in cyberbullying behaviors. Don’t be afraid to think creatively about alternative sanctions instead of relying on detention or suspension. For example, cyberbullies could be required (based on the grievance) to research and write an essay on the negative affects of cyberbullying. They could also be required to write a formal apology to the aggrieved party or parties. Disciplinary outcomes should be considered and carried out on a case-by-case basis.
We really think that you should be as specific as possible in your policy – make sure you cover harassment and cheating and disrupting the class environment by texting or Facebooking, and talk about threats and explicit pictures and pornography laws and police intervention. Clearly outline the consequences for prohibited behaviors. Get students and parents in on this discussion. Schools will have problems as the school community gets used to these changes, but hopefully the problems will be few and far between and will get better with time.
Students will learn appropriate behaviors and these should—in time—become the norm if a positive school climate is prioritized and established. For example, ten years ago, cell phones were much more of a problem in our college classrooms than they are now. University students, at least in our experience as professors, have gotten better at cell phone etiquette and are not letting the devices distract from learning. Sure, a phone occasionally will go off in class, but usually the student is apologetic and immediately acknowledges the faux pas. Of course middle and high school students are different from those in a university, but we are optimistic that we can work through the same challenges at the secondary school level.
After a policy is created or revised, the school community needs to be educated about it. Students should be informed about the circumstances under which their personal portable electronic devices can be confiscated and searched. They should also be reminded that anything they do on a school-owned device is subject to review and appropriate discipline. This should be explained to students and parents, possibly through assemblies, orientations, community meetings, and messaging strategies (voice mails, memorandums, etc.). Be intentional about conveying these messages, and don’t just assume they know your policy! As a student recently told us:
“I think it’s a good idea that all schools include in their handbook definitions of the types of bullying and sexting as well as the consequences and/ or disciplinary actions, but then perhaps kids should be quizzed on this every school year. Call me an airhead, but I never read the school’s student handbook until my family moved to Florida my junior year of high school. I remember I got in trouble the first day of school because I clearly did not read the dress code part of the student handbook. My old school handed out agendas and handbooks at the beginning of the school year, but no one ever read them. Those things would just get stuffed at the bottom of our lockers. If all schools enforced something as simple as reading the student handbook and made sure students understand what they’re reading, then I think they would be a step closer to educating kids that they can get help if they’re being bullied.
—Anonymous student from Florida
We’ll talk more about policy and school climate in our next blog, so look for that next week!